Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

_____

The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Lieberman, Netanyahu and Dr Strangelove

 
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The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister is like the plot of a nihlistic black comedy.

Image design: Khaled Diab

Image design: Khaled Diab

Thursday 9 June 2016

To Arabs, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister sounds like it could be the plotline of a 21st-century Israeli adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s classic, Dr Strangelove, but without the laughs.

After all, this is a politician who has casually suggested, on a number of occasions, that Israel should bomb the Aswan High Dam, reportedly for what he perceived as Egypt’s  support of Yasser Arafat and the, at the time, hypothetical redeployment of Egyptian troops to the demilitarized Sinai.

If I were someone who took the statements of politicians at face value, then this threat would terrify me. If by bombing, Lieberman meant the destruction of the dam, then that would likely lead to the certain death of millions of my compatriots, including family and friends, who would be swept away in a huge tsunami-like tidal wave.

Even though such destruction is impossible short of multiple nuclear strikes, engineers say, this has become Lieberman’s most famous and infamous outburst in Egypt, given its genocidal implications, with most articles in the Egyptian media about his new position mentioning it.

Another Egyptian media fixation is on Lieberman’s brief “career” as a nightclub bouncer, suggesting that Moldovan immigrant is some kind of brainless thug. While certainly thuggish, he is highly intelligent and shrewd. After all, his stint as a bouncer was while he was a student at the Hebrew University and he guarded the doors of a student club.

Lieberman, whose writer father imbued him with a love of Russian literature, once reportedly dreamed of becoming a poet. And like numerous frustrated artists before him who turned to extremist politics, one can only wonder how much better things would have been for Lieberman and the world had he made it as a writer.

Of course, few Egyptians have taken seriously Lieberman’s threat to undam the forces of annihilation on their country. However, the fact that Lieberman’s past statements are coming back to haunt him reflect that words are not just empty sounds that travel no further than the echo chamber of Yisrael Beiteinu supporters.

His bomb-laden bombast is, nevertheless, more than simple bluster, it reflects a deeper malaise: Lieberman’s ideological and instinctive hatred of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. This is reflected in his consistently hawkish stance, which seems, for instance, to have tipped the balance towards outright war in Gaza in 2014, through Lieberman’s rivalry with Netanyahu and his constant mockery of the prime minister as a weakling unwilling to use sufficient force.

And it is this radical streak which troubles Egyptian and Arab commentators the most. Lieberman has, over the years, demanded that Israel go to war not only with Gaza, but also to exercise extreme violence against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Palestinian prisoners. He has also advocated the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their towns to a future Palestinian state, demanded professions of “loyalty” from Arabs in Israel and suggested that those who are “disloyal” should be beheaded.

This has raised fears among many Arab observers that Lieberman will exploit his defence portfolio to advance a belligerent, militaristic approach that will pull Netanyahu’s already extremist government to the outermost reaches of the far-right.

Some analysts are convinced that by handing over Israel’s army to Lieberman, Binyamin Netanyahu is deftly torpedoing the latest Arab peace overtures, this time coming from Egypt, not to mention international efforts, namely from France, without putting himself directly in the firing line.

Just days before the announcement was first made, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi extended a hand to Israel, promising a “warmer peace” if Israel would only “resolve the issue of our Palestinian brothers”.

This led some commentators to view the apparently unhinged choice of Lieberman for the defence portfolio as a move intended to humiliate Sisi and the Arab League. “[Israel] is sticking its tongue out to all the Arabs,” Hassan Nafie, an Egyptian professor of political science, was quoted as saying. “Israel sees peace initiatives as coming from a position of weakness and surrender.”

However, for many Arabs, and especially Palestinians, Lieberman is simply a case of “business as usual”. “They are all Lieberman,” wrote Palestinian journalist Awni Sadiq in reference to Netanyahu and his far-right coalition.

Some see any change of personnel as irrelevant because Netanyahu, the nearest Israel has come to a dictator and whose endless tenure reflects the wisdom of term limits imposed elsewhere in the world, ultimately calls the shots. “At the end of the day, it is Netanyahu who decides more than anyone what is Israel’s policy in war and in peace,” wrote Ashraf al-Arjami in the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.

While I comprehend the depths of Palestinian disillusionment at settlement expansion, movement restrictions and the long series of extremist governments from which this attitude emanates, I can’t help feeling that it is misguided. Although it is possible that it will be business as usual and, charged with actual security authority, Lieberman will learn to temper his ultra-extremism, but we must not underestimate his potential to cause enormous damage.

With the defence ministry at his mercy, Lieberman may well exert every effort to neutralise the Israeli army’s newfound role as pragmatic moderator and conscience to a civilian leadership that has lost its grasp of reality and now occupies a (self-)destructive bubble.

This is reflected in Lieberman’s bill to reintroduce the death penalty for Palestinians convicted on terrorism charges, while his open support of a soldier caught on film murdering in cold blood an incapacitated stabber in Hebron suggests that the practice of extra-judicial execution of Palestinian attackers is likely to escalate under his watch.

As we approach the second anniversary of the last Gaza war, and as tensions between Israel and Hamas rise, another war could be in the making. And, sadly, with Lieberman at the helm, the devastation and bloodletting of the next bout could potentially make the 2014 war seem like a minor skirmish.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 2 June 2016.

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Egypt’s borderline paranoia

 
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By Khaled Diab

My interrogation at the Egyptian border about my journalism and opinions is not about state security, but the insecurity of a paranoid state,

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Following the crash of a Russian airliner over the Sinai, concerns have been raised about lax security at Egypt’s airports. Although the jury is out on what actually happened, I can report that there is one area of border security in which Egypt excels: policing the minds of its own citizens.

I got a taste of this during a recent trip to Sinai. Given my Arab and journalistic background, entering and leaving Israel is sometimes akin to playing the lottery, with the winning ticket being a simple, straightforward, untroubled passage.

As we approached the Eilat-Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt, I felt a sense of trepidation, like a gambler watching the roulette wheel spin.

Although we were travelling for leisure, the mutual distrust and cold peace between my native and host countries meant there was a pretty high chance that my passage would be far from leisurely.

On the Israeli side, everything went so smoothly — with the women working in the small terminal so charmed by our son that they tried to tempt him behind the counter — that I allowed myself the luxury of hoping the same would happen on the Egyptian side.

Alas, it was not to prove so. Fortunately, after a while, they stamped the passports of my wife and son and let them leave – though my prolonged absence got my wife very worried.

Alone in the dusty, rundown terminal, I watched the Israeli and other tourists — many of whom were heading for Taba’s casinos — swan through the terminal with barely a cursory glance at their travel documents. In fact, with the passport control booth regularly unmanned, confused tourists actually had to search around for an official to check their documents.

Security is a well-documented concern at smaller Egyptian airports and crossings, though it is pretty tight in Cairo’s main international airport.

This was symbolically driven home to me on the way back. At the point where the Egyptian and Israeli crossings meet, two bored and unfit-looking Egyptian guards sat chewing the fat. On the Israeli side, a mean-looking body-builder type with an automatic weapon marched regimentally up and down, eyes camouflaged by his mirror sunglasses.

This hit-or-miss attitude to citizen security made me feel all the more offended by the long wait that was being forced upon me by the guardians of the security of the regime. I reflected to myself that being an Egyptian is not worth much, even in Egypt.

That partly explains why I haven’t renewed my Egyptian passport since it expired a number of years ago. I now enter the country on my European passport, which ironically provides greater protection, though less so than before, as illustrated by the Al Jazeera English trials.

With time on my hands, I began to wonder what was going on and my mind began to wander, in light of the increasingly arbitrary exercising of emergency powers in Egypt, between likely and more fanciful possibilities.

After a couple of hours, I was finally taken upstairs and led into the office of a senior officer. The air-conditioning in the spartan room was set to Arctic and the AC unit, as if mimicking some ancient form of torture, was dripping loudly into a bucket at the back.

Unlike my recent interrogation at Ben Gurion airport, my interrogator was far friendlier and exceedingly polite, regularly remarking on how “talking to you is really enjoyable” in an ambiguous tone of voice. In a way, I felt like I was the special guest on a surreal, Kafkaesque talk show, with the host exhibiting what might have been, under other circumstances, a flattering interest in my career and ideas.

The idealist in me was screaming to tell my interrogator that he was intruding on my privacy, while the realist counselled patience. Fearful of escalating the situation at a time when Egypt is undergoing one of the largest crackdowns in its modern history, with hundreds literally vanishing into thin air and thousands behind bars, I listened to the voice of caution.

After satisfying the officer’s curiosity about what I was doing living in Jerusalem, he wanted to know what I’d produced recently about the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Our exchange got even more philosophical when he switched his line of questioning to my beliefs. When he asked me whether I was still a Muslim, I tried to deflect his question by arguing that it was an issue of private conviction. When he persisted, we got into an exchange about the difference between being a-religious, agnostic and atheistic, and where I stood on that spectrum.

But all this turned out to be the appetizer. What most concerned the state security officer seemed to be my journalism about Egypt and my views on the situation there, including in the troubled Sinai.

As I expressed my honest views of Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and the absence of democracy in Egypt, I wondered what my interrogator was making of what he was hearing. However, he was giving nothing away. Showing the kind of balanced interviewing style absent from the pro-regime media, he simply probed my opinions, without passing judgement.

I don’t know how much of my interrogation was based on information the authorities already had and how much was a fishing expedition. Though I’m certainly on state security’s radar — as demonstrated by the fact that they knew I was a journalist at Cairo airport when I passed through there last summer, without me have declared myself as such — a lot of it was fishing, since the officer confiscated my computer and phone, and called me back for a number of rounds of questioning. However, I’m unlikely to find out, short of another revolution throwing up my file, as the previous one had done with my father’s.

However, as I sat waiting, I realised that the information I had already volunteered could be used to concoct a “compelling” case against me, especially with all the show trials that have occurred over the past couple of years.

Based in Israel/Palestine, I am highly critical of the regime, write for the Israeli media and, even worse from the regime’s perspective, Al Jazeera, and have photos of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp on my computer. In addition, though many Egyptians have become more open and tolerant towards atheists in recent times, the regime has a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde approach to non-believers, which has depended largely on the personal convictions and whims of individual judges and officials.

I could not resist a wry smile at the dizzying array of charges or suspicions that could be directed my way: “Zionist agent,” “Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser,” “insulting the president,”  “defaming religion,” to mention but a few.

After nearly eight hours in custody, I was released and was not bothered again during my stay, except for one brief visit to my hotel. Having a foreign passport, writing in English, living abroad and perhaps encountering a relatively open-minded officer meant that I am far more fortunate than the thousands of courageous prisoners of conscience filling Egypt’s prisons.

I fear that the crash of the Russian airplane, if it proves to be terrorism, will result in another, severe round of repression in which the regime will use the so-called “war on terror” to muzzle and imprison its critics.

An early sign of this is the shocking summons and detention by military intelligence of one of Egypt’s foremost journalists and human rights defenders, Hossam Bahgat, who, on the back of an enormous campaign for his release, has been let go for now but charges against him are still being investigated.

In Egypt, it would seem, critical journalists too often wind up behind bars, while hypocritical ones tend to get their own TV shows.

Of course, Egypt is not alone. To varying degrees, most of the Middle East treats journalists and freethinkers with an enormous dose of suspicion and paranoia. But they are fighting a losing battle, especially in the information age, as ideas cannot be silenced, arrested or detained at the border. Indeed, Bahgat’s articles are now enjoying an online renaissance with a global wave of readers triggered by concern about his arrest.

Egypt needs to stop searching people’s political and intellectual baggage and focus its attentions on the actual luggage moving through its airports. It’s the insecurity of the state that has to be shed before there can be true state security in Egypt.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 10 November 2015.

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Sisi’s Suez moment

 
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By Khaled Diab

Suez Canal II is not about economics. It is a symbol of how President Sisi is supposedly navigating Egypt through narrow straits towards modernity.

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Sequels rarely match up to the original, most film buffs will tell you. But judging by the trailers and the blitz publicity campaign, Suez Canal II will be every bit as significant as its predecessor.

Dubbed as Egypt’s “gift to the world”, inaugural ceremony for the new channel of the Suez Caal promised to “dazzle the world”. The spectacle included an air and naval show, fireworks, folklore performances and even a performance of Verdi’s classic opera, Aida.

On Wednesday 5 August, the front page of the semi-official al-Akhbar newspaper carried an image of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the helm of a ship steering it through the canal, with smiling citizens waving flags enthusiastically in the background.

The symbolism is clear. The ship is presumably Egypt, the canal is the narrow strait the country is currently navigating, the  destination is a brighter future and every Egyptian is firmly behind their president. But with all the pomp, swagger and bluster in the air, perhaps nautical metaphors are not the most appropriate: unseen icebergs and the Titanic spring to mind.

More subtly, the image echoes the propaganda during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. For instance, in a nationalist song from 1963, the legendary heartthrob Abdel-Haleem Hafez sang:

Our president is a navigator. He’s taking us across.

He’s a worker and farmer. He’s one of us.

And perhaps behind al-Sisi’s surprising choice of megaproject is an unspoken wish that the Suez Canal will propel him to legendary status, as it did Nasser. After all, the canal sealed Nasser’s reputation when he nationalised it, triggering the 1956 Suez Crisis, known to Egyptians as the Tripartite Aggression.

The Suez Canal was also important to Anwar al-Sadat, who was often lionised as the architect of the “crossing of the canal” during the 1973 war with Israel. Mubarak did not have a Suez moment but he did have plenty of waterways, from the stalled al-Salam (Peace) Canal to make the Sinai bloom and the Toshka white elephant to create a new Nile valley in the Western desert.

In fact, the Suez Canal has been an important nationalist symbol since its construction. For Khedive Ismail, it was a central plank – along with rapid industrialisation and the new Cairo he built as the “Paris on the Nile” – of Egypt’s steady march to modernity.

Symbolism aside, does Suez Canal II actually live up to the hype? Strictly speaking, the megaproject is not a new canal but a 72-km parallel channel to extend the existing one. And it is not even the first such expansion – there were previous ones in 1955 and 1980.

This makes the notion that it is a second Suez Canal and an engineering feat on a par with the first seem ludicrous, considering that the original waterway was 164-km long and completely revolutionised shipping from Asia to Europe by giving vessels a massive 7,000-km shortcut.

In actuality, Egypt, perhaps in light of the rapid de-development of the region, seems to be downsizing its mega-dreams compared with previous generations. But the boastfulness and adulation surrounding them is as grandiose as ever.

That is not to say Suez Canal II is not without engineering merit. Unlike the original French-conceived canal, the new channel was completely designed and implemented by Egypt. Moreover, unlike its predecessor, it did not result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Egyptian forced labourers.

Unlike many previous megaprojects, not only was this project actually completed, it was finished ahead of time, in a record single year, which some have seen as a positive sign for the future. In addition, unlike the original, the expansion is domestically financed, largely through investment certificates sold to citizens, which could act as a promising model for future initiatives.

Unlike in the 19th century, whether it succeeds or fails, Suez Canal II is unlikely to help bankrupt an already highly indebted nation. However, Egypt may have trouble paying back citizens if its projections prove unfounded.

According to government projections, the expanded capacity and faster passage time will propel the canal’s revenues from the current $5.5 billion to an astonishing $13.5 billion. Many international and local experts are sceptical this will happen because the canal is currently running at below capacity anyway and the rate of annual growth in global shipping would have to be considerably higher than it is today.

Though they make a strong case and one I find highly persuasive, it is possible the experts are wrong, as officials keep reminding us, and Egypt will confound its critics, as it did in 1956 when everyone expected the country would not be able to operate the canal after removing its British and French management.

Personally, I believe this was a massive missed opportunity. Rather than focus on an initiative of questionable and marginal benefit, the government should have chosen a megaproject of true national importance.

As I’ve argued before, instead of Suez Canal II, the billions sunk into dredging the desert sand should have gone to shoring up the Nile Delta, which is threatened by rising sea levels and sinking sediment. Although experts have been warning for decades of these dangers, Egypt has taken almost no action to save its breadbasket and home to nearly half its population.

Now that is truly a sinking ship that needs to be navigated to a safe port before it is too late.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 August 2015.

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The death of sanity in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The sentencing to death of former president Mohamed Morsi is the latest chapter in Egypt’s comedy of terrors that could push the country over the edge

Wednesday 27 May 2015

It may well go down in history as Egypt’s show trial of the century – one that is not only unjust but also positively Kafkaesque in its absurdity and self-defeating surrealism.

Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, along with 105 co-defendants, has been sentenced to death for a prison break during the upheavals of the 2011 revolution. On the ethical level, this trial is a travesty because Morsi did not enjoy due process in a highly politicised trial which Amnesty International described as “grossly unfair” and “a charade based on null and void procedures”.

In addition, as a long-standing opponent of capital punishment, I find the reckless abandon with which Egyptian courts have been handing out death sentences to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters both wrong and highly troubling. And this is occurring just when Egypt seemed to be a country on the road to phasing out capital punishment.

The fact that a handful of the hundreds on death row have been executed may indicate that Morsi will never actually be put to death. However, even life in prison without first going through a fair trial before an impartial court would be an inhumane and profound injustice.

Beyond issues of ethics and morality, Morsi’s sentence – the most symbolic of the recent persecution of the Brotherhood which has seen hundreds of protesters killed and thousands of supporters thrown behind bars, not to mention legion secular activists – could possibly push the situation in Egypt over the edge.

Within hours of the verdict, reports emerged that three judges were shot dead in the Sinai, possibly in connection with the trial. And just as Morsi’s ouster escalated the insurgency in the desert peninsula, his death sentence is likely to play a similar role, not just in Sinai but also on the Egyptian mainland.

And the tragedy of the situation is that it need not have been so. In fact, the past two years have been a veritable comedy of terrors in Egypt.

Morsi’s dictatorial grab for power which began in November 2012, his knack for losing friends and whipping up popular disapproval, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s colossal incompetence and mismanagement of the country meant that the movement which had made successive governments quake for some eight decades had lost its political legitimacy and become a spent force.

Instead of giving Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum following the huge protests of 30 June 2013, had the military steered the country towards early elections, much of the subsequent blood and tears could have been avoided.

However, the Egyptian military decided to follow the path of greatest resistance. After Morsi’s ouster, the al-Sisi regime used oppression and persecution where magnanimity and reconciliation would have been far more effective.

Rather than finish off the movement, the regime’s myopic and bloody purge – which included the deadly dispersals of largely peaceful sit-ins, mass arrests, trials in kangaroo courts and the outlawing of the Brotherhood  – has strengthened and radicalised what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, and possibly won it back some of the public sympathy it has lost.

It has also sent out a message to many Islamists that the political process is not for them and that peaceful change through democracy will not occur. The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to renounce violence in the 1970s was a controversial one – which led to violent splinter groups being formed – but the movement’s successful use of its soft power silenced many of its Islamist critics and even drew in new and unlikely supporters when the persecution of Egypt’s secular dissidents left it as the main opposition movement. A significant percentage of these supporters will now likely follow the path of political violence, convinced that the secular state is irredeemably “evil” and “un-Islamic”.

After their disastrous year in power and given their theological basis, I do not entertain delusions, like some do, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy. Like far-right movements in Europe, the Brotherhood’s leadership saw the democratic process not as a tool for the peaceful transfer of power but as a drawbridge leading into the palace which they would slam firmly shut afterwards.

But the Brotherhood’s antidemocratic tendencies are no excuse to persecute and demonise the movement. Having it involved in the political process is far better than turning its members into social pariahs and outcasts who, with nothing left to lose, may prove willing to lose everything.

But, sadly, in Egypt’s zero-sum political culture, there is far too much of a winner-takes-all mentality. Following Mubarak’s removal from power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) brutally clung on to power for as long as it took to load the dice in its favour, especially when it came to the protection of its huge economic fiefdom. The army had hoped that going through the motions of “democratisation” would lead to the emergence of a toothless parliament and lame duck president which, like in the Turkey of yesteryear, could be controlled from behind the scenes.

Instead of playing ball, the Muslim Brotherhood set their own power grab in motion, with Morsi ironically appointing al-Sisi to head up SCAF because he apparently believed he was sympathetic to their cause and was junior and inexperienced enough to dominate and control. When Morsi started ruling by presidential decree, this not only made him hugely unpopular across Egypt but also set him on a collision course with the army.

The military saw Morsi’s grand failures and mounting opposition to his rule as its ticket to return visibly to the driver’s seat. Buoyed by ephemeral popularity, the al-Sisi regime has massively overplayed its hand. Egypt has seen a tidal wave of state violence and oppression, not just of the Brotherhood but also of the secular opposition.

This manic exercise of state power has seen Sisimania wane considerably. This is reflected in how al-Sisi is no longer the media darling he was before gaining office. Despite massive crackdowns on the press, voices of dissent and criticism are rising once again in the media, with some even calling for early elections.

With the state’s machinery of repression working at full throttle, al-Sisi’s regime is faced with stark choices: either follow al-Assad’s path and possibly push the country into the abyss, or follow Tunisia’s path of reconciliation, consensus politics and democratisation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 May 2015.

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Love thy neighbouring enemy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Recognising the good qualities of the other side can be a first step to healing Arab-Israeli wounds.

Friday 2 September 2011

The recent coordinated terror attacks in southern Israel were a tragedy and my condolences go out to the bereaved families and friends of the victims. Continued violence is not the answer to this conflict, and targeting civilians is a war crime, and for good reason, regardless of who commits it or why.

While Israeli grief and anger are understandable, Israel’s predictable decision to respond to terror with terror is not, especially since, in this decades-old conflict, every ugly action is seen as a justified reaction to a perceived uglier precedent by the other side.

Bombing Gaza, like the cruel blockade against the Strip, is a form of indefensible collective punishment made all the more unjust by the fact that Israel decided Gazans were guilty until proven innocent, even though evidence is emerging suggesting that the unknown attackers were probably not Palestinians.

Equally predictably, Islamic militants in Gaza responded with a barrage of primitive and inaccurate rockets against civilian targets, another form of unjustifiable and counterproductive collective punishment.

In addition, Israel’s decision to trample over Egypt’s sovereignty, shooting dead a number of border guards in the process, was not only illegal but incredibly reckless. What if Egypt had decided to respond in kind and follow Israel’s example by crossing the border to apprehend the killers?

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about that because Egypt responded sensibly and called for an apology and a joint investigation into the incident – something Israel should have done after the attacks from Sinai.

What this futile and bloody exchange of fire illustrates is that an eye for an eye achieves nothing except to create the kind of blind rage that keeps the bloody cycle of conflict turning. That is why I believe that Palestinians and Israelis should reject all forms of violence and not just that committed by the other side.

The last few days have also set in motion an ugly war of words between Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians. With so much animosity and hate in the air, as an antidote, I would like to invite Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and other Arabs to engage in a thought experiment in which they write a short passage on what they admire and respect about the other side.

Here are my suggestions.

Israelis
In a little over six decades of existence, Israel has built itself into a prosperous, democratic and technologically advanced society, not to mention a cultural melting pot. The successful revival of the Hebrew language, used only liturgically for centuries, also has to count as an impressive success story.

All of this is made the more remarkable by the fact that Israel has achieved this against the backdrop of being in a constant state of conflict and following the near-extinction of European Jewry.

While a number of Arab regimes traditionally used the conflict with Israel and other security threats to limit freedoms, Israel has managed to build a fairly vibrant democracy, especially for its Jewish citizens, despite the passage of some repressive legislation in recent years, such as the Nakba and the anti-boycott laws.

Moreover, despite the disenfranchisement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian-Israelis enjoy, unofficial discrimination notwithstanding, more or less equivalent rights as their Israeli compatriots and greater than most Arabs elsewhere in the region.

By Middle Eastern standards, Israel traditionally has an admirable record on freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent, though its media freedom ranking has taken a battering in recent years (93rd out of 178 countries) due to military censorship and restrictions on the movement of international and Israeli journalists. The gap between it and some of its Arab neighbours is also narrowing in light of the Arab Spring.

This respect for freedom of thought, along with a culture that prizes originality and creativity, has transformed this small country into the Middle East’s science and innovation powerhouse. One recent index ranked Israel 14th in the global innovation stakes, while another placed Israel in the top group of ‘global innovation leaders’.

On the individual level, though Israelis can behave with an overconfident swagger and be direct to the point of rudeness, there is a refreshing honesty in their manner and beyond this lack of surface gloss lies a keen sense of Mediterranean warmth and hospitality. Mixed in with this individualism is a traditional Jewish sense of solidarity that kicks in especially in times of need.

Palestinians
Steadfastness is perhaps the word that best captures the spirit of the Palestinian experience over the past 60-odd years, whether in exile or under Israeli control, and a sense of loss and irretrievably lost worlds, similar to that felt by the remnants of European Jewry, permeates through Palestinian art, culture and conscience.

Palestinians have been betrayed and let down by just about everyone, yet they remain resolute survivors and resourceful adaptors. This is reflected in the daily struggle of West Bankers and Gazans to live in dignity, and for the most part peacefully strive for freedom, amid the hardships and degradation of occupation.

Despite having to endure the double oppression of occupation and domestic repression, Palestinians demonstrate an admirable level of determination to advance themselves as individuals and as a nation. A number of prominent Palestinian tycoons, including the “Palestinian Rothschild” Munib al-Masri, have even taken a leaf out of the Zionist manual and are engaged in quiet background “nation-building” in preparation for their eventual independence.

This determination in the face of adversity is reflected in the fact that Palestinians, despite restrictions on their access to education, are said to be the most-educated people in the Arab world. This is particularly so in the Palestinian diaspora which is gradually growing to resemble its Jewish counterpart in terms of education and economic well-being.

For instance, without the massive exodus of Palestinian professionals, intellectuals and entrepreneurs to neighbouring Jordan, the country may have remained a backwater, rather than the relatively prosperous and modern society it has become. Prior to their expulsion from Kuwait, Palestinians played a pivotal role in that emirate’s development. Further afield, Palestinians in the United States, along with Arab-Americans in general, are the most-educated and best-paid minority, according to a recent survey.

Similarly to Israel’s political landscape, Palestinian politics, though less free, have traditionally been dominated by secularists, despite a parallel rise of religious extremism on both sides in recent years. One of the reasons behind this long secularist tradition is the pluralistic nature of the Palestinian population, which is not only divided between Muslim majority and a significant Christian minority, but is made up of numerous ethnic groups.

In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis have a proud tradition of integration and tolerance that, if utilised successfully, can bode well for a future of coexistence.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 30 August 2011.

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